Monday, August 31, 2009

In Defense of Black Women, Black Hair and Michelle Obama (...not that they need it...)

fyi: this essay was previously posted in the notes of my facebook page in response to what my friend tanya wrote on the subject. ( everyone's responses inspired me to work on a few blackgrrl essays that i've been marinating on all summer, so there will be more where this came from in the very near future. enjoy.


I’m going to try to make this brief.

After a lifetime of ostracism, ridicule, genuine curiousity (from American black folk, even -- walking up to me and touching my hair and asking me a million stupid questions!) and much humiliation and degradation all around, I have natural hair – and yes, I’ve had it for quite some time. I vascillated with hair choices for awhile when I first came to New York City, but then I got a plum role in the original cast of the first national tour of RENT and signed a hair rider that allowed them to do whatever they wanted to my hair, within reason. in this case: perm my hair – and then bleach the hell out of it, to give it a look that they thought was “edgy” and “cool”. (Because apparently, nothing is edgier than a black woman who dyes her hair blonde. Especially if you're European.)

Yes, I was financially compensated for this hair rider. Was it worth it? Well, hair does grow back. Eventually. It’s an awfully long wait until it does. To paraphrase Tom Petty, The waiting is the hardest part. I remember going to bed in tears when all of it started falling out in bright yellow clumps. (sigh.) But that wasn't my moment of natural hair clarity. Truth be told, I decided that I wanted natural hair after my mother accidentally dropped a large smoldering boiling lava hot straightening comb on the back of my neck when I was 8 or 9 years old. I couldn’t do anything about it until I grew up. That’s right: my mother continued to straighten my hair until I was out of her jurisdiction. Would it surprise you to know that I shaved it all off when I hit college? (Ah, the good life...)

That hair meltdown in RENT wasn't the beginning of the end, it was the last straw. I actually had bald patches and scabs on my scalp when I left the show. More on that some other time.

I should probably tell you that I’m from the South – the ATL, to be exact – and that, for pretty much all the black women that I knew as a kid and as I grew older, natural hair was the exception, NEVER the rule. The understanding was that you weren’t presentable unless your hair was bone straight, without a hint of kink. Don’t get me wrong. Every once in awhile, you’d see someone with an Afro but it wasn’t condoned and it wasn’t EVER anything to aspire to. Dreadlocks? Unthinkable.

I have returned to the South more often than I care to admit and walked through black malls and stores and shops and eateries and whatnot, and I have had conversation come to a stone cold stop when they get a look at my natural hair, no matter what it’s doing. Black folk will stare at me, they will point at me – like I’m a walking freakshow, on display. Please understand me and don’t get it twisted: these magic moments didn’t happen 20 years ago. They happened last Christmas.

Are there black folk down South with natural hair and dreadlocks and such? Why, yes. But in my experience, it’s the exception, not the rule. It’s not common. Not by a long shot.

And if I had a dollar for every time a black man gave me hell because I insisted on having natural hair – from my 92 year old daddy to the guys I went to college with and then some – I could probably buy the apartment building I live in.

Should I bother telling you that I have yet to meet, date, make out with, casually pass by in the street or otherwise involve myself with any white guy -- gay or straight, foreign or domestic or any other variation therein -- who doesn't love my natural hair just the way it is, whatever it happens to be doing? Yeah, I probably shouldn't mention that. Let's just pretend I didn't say it.

Maybe this is a Southern thing. Maybe this is a black thing. Maybe it’s me. I don’t know.

How I got from that “bone straight” mentality to a totally natural Afro of near Angela Davis proportions that now rests comfortably on my head like a well-earned crown is a story that will probably make a great movie someday. My point is, I have struggled with my hair, and in my personal and professional life, I have had to contend with others who struggled with it, too. And in so doing, they struggled with me.

So it was with genuine interest that I read Tonya Steele’s empassioned note “In Defense of Michelle Obama (not that she needs defending)”

Tonya was ranting and raving and she was very angry, and in her anger she was a roman candle of sorts, touching on a lot of different issues that sparked me -- way too many points to address in one fell swoop. The one thing that she said that clicked with me was what she said about black folks and low self-esteem. So, away we go.

There’s been a lot of wonderful things floating around out there about Michelle Obama. The thing that always makes me cringe is that when there’s an avalanche of love and respect for any public figure, the backlash (which is inevitable, by the way) swings just as hard in the other direction, and people find reasons to lash out at them and rip them to shreds with the same boundless energy that they used to throw their arms wide open and celebrate them.

This is especially hard to take because it’s a black woman in the crosshairs – and it ain’t Lil’ Kim this time, with a three foot wig on her head and her titty hanging out with a pastie over the nipple. It’s someone that’s a whole lot like me and my black female friends and acquaintances. Truth be told, Black women like us aren’t supposed to exist. In the entertainment industry/media, we are anomalies to everyone except Tyler Perry. And suddenly one of us breaks through the claptrap, holds the media transfixed and captures the imagination of the world. So of course, this is a hot topic.

But the backlash is coming. Look at the way conservatives jumped all over that moment Michelle had with the Queen of England. They’re coming for her. And don’t think that she doesn’t know it.

But I digress.

Michelle Obama is a public figure. Because of this, absolutely everything she says and does matters a GREAT deal – from the shoes on her feet to the hair on her head to what she likes to snack on in the middle of the night. Get this, loud and clear: It matters, it matters, it matters. A bigger part of the reason why it matters so much is because it reverberates around the world ten thousand-fold –in retail sales, in goodwill and most definitely in attitude, and of course in images/photo ops. And as you well know, a powerful image can change the world.

Lets face it – her presence alone has been enough to shock the hell out of most people. If she had natural hair, it would start a revolution.

Are black women free to do whatever they want to do with their hair? Well – theoretically, yes. We all have free will, we can all do whatever we want within reason. But black hair has always been political and a place of contention because it’s the most obvious way that we as black women have to show the world that we are conforming and yielding to the status quo and what it dictates as acceptable and/or beautiful. Don’t believe me? Sisters who are working their way up the corporate ladder or who make a living in a corporate world know exactly what I’m talking about. Ask one of them if I’m wrong. Your natural hair is unacceptable in that environment because it’s considered a threat – and thusly, by default, so are you.

Is anyone in that conservative company going to tell you that? Of course not! That would make it too easy for you to sue the living daylights out of them and stage a Putney Swope-style takeover of your own. (Hm. Another screenplay idea…I’m full of them today…)

This isn’t the kind of thing that you necessarily have to think about if you are an artist, or if you own your own business or if you are a musician – unless you’re in front of the camera. As an actor, I think about it a lot because what my hair looks like dictates whether or not I get the gig. Interesingly enough, casting agents love the Michelle Obama look – so if I go into the audition with a wig that looks like her hair and some pearls, they’ll be more inclined to cast me than if I showed up with natural hair. Talent be damned. It’s all about the black woman they know, the one that they’re comfortable with. It’s not about the individual.

Think about it. Can you name any black actresses in Hollywood with natural hair – besides Whoopi? Essence Magazine – the premiere black women’s magazine in this country, by the way – did a story about Black Hollywood actresses. Not a kink in the bunch. And can i just tell you how profoundly disappointed i was when my friend Ralph gifted me with a bunch of African women's magazines from his Christmas trip to Africa -- and they ALL had perms and weaves!

Not that there's ANYTHING wrong with that...but dang.

How about R&B stars, black pop stars? When was the last time you saw a black music video that featured natural hair? You’re thinking about Erykah, or maybe Lauren. Right? It's not that there isn't ANY natural hair out there. It's just that usually, it's the exception. It's not the rule.

If you’re on camera, you’re probably conforming, too -- just like the black folks who have to work on a corporate plantation. At the very least, you’ve come to that fork in the road and figured it out one way or the other. I know I have.

(If you're on facebook, check out my facebook profile pic. Yup.That’s a wig.)

That corporate illustration is just one example of what I’m referring to. There are many, many more.

Here’s the thing that gets me. Over the years, I’ve had long winding conversations with black women who are downright terrified of not straightening their hair anymore because to quote one friend, they don’t know what they’d look like if they did. Like all of a sudden, she’s going to turn into some sort of beast because her weave and her perm is gone. But what she’s really afraid of is that this is the way the world would treat her. Like a beast. It’s not just what she sees when she looks in the mirror. This reverberates all the way through every aspect of her life – from that corporate desk job to the brother that’s interested in her to the church she attends. When you care what everyone thinks, all of that stuff matters. Please believe me – there are plenty of black women out here who care a great deal as to whether the brother in question finds them attractive and are perfectly willing to do whatever they have to – hairwise and otherwise – to secure him.

Caring what everyone thinks reeks of low self esteem. That’s really at the heart of it all.

No black woman should hate their hair in its natural state or feel as though they are diminished or somehow lesser than because they don’t have a perm. The truth is, way too often in this day and age, this is the case. I’m insulated from having to deal with a lot of that junk because I’m an artist and I live in NYC. And yeah, I love it that black men are making these declarations about loving natural hair and all but if you’ve really got your head together, there’s no need to feel compelled to control or manipulate black women by telling them what to do with their hair. Or verbally abuse them. Or emotionally abuse them. Or physically attack them. Or denigrate them in any way.

Then again, I think that low self esteem/emotionally damaged people are the reason why a lot of things in this world are askew.

In closing, to paraphrase Tony Brown’s Journal: This is just one black woman’s opinion. Thanks for reading this. And thanks to Tanya for inspiring it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

your inner svengali

i've been auditioning a lot this summer for on camera work: mostly commercials and independent film, but occasionally a short here and there. i usually get a callback and then i don't get the job, for whatever the reason -- reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with lack of talent or effort on my part. that's hard to explain to people who quantify success and hard work and employment with an inside-the-box, 9 to 5 day job mentality, that way of thinking that has building blocks that lead all the way to success.

it's even harder to explain to people who've watched way too many episodes of that tv show fame, or who semi-worship the movie - people who honestly believe that if you have talent, you'll "make it," whatever that is. that's right up there with that idiotic all-american horatio alger "rags to riches" myth. nobody pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps. nobody.

let me say this loud enough for you to hear it, whoever you are: having talent does not guarantee your success on any level in the entertainment industry. while it's true that talent helps a great deal, in the grand scheme of things, talent doesn't matter. this is especially true if we're talking about on camera work. i suppose if i lived in hollywood, that's a bigger part of where my focus would be. like i fit into their beauty standard, anyway.

just because you're talented, just because you do a great audition and maybe even a great callback, just because you have presence, that doesn't mean that you'll get the part. and if you do get the part, that doesn't mean you'll keep it. the whole thing can fall apart at any point in the process. there are no guarantees, even when you're working. especially when you're working. because if they think you look funky in the playbacks on that monitor or if your chemistry with your co-star isn't up to scratch or whatever, they will replace you. it happens all the time.

there are so many variables involved. and it's usually stuff that has nothing to do with you. stuff like, how tall you are. or whether somebody thinks you're pretty. or not pretty enough. or whether the camera likes you. what does any of that have to do with whether you can act or not? not a bloody thing.

there, i said it.

let's get one thing straight. there is fat, as in overweight. and then there's hollywood fat, which looks fine in the real world. but in el lay or on camera, a size 8 is positively bovine. i'm not anorexic. i'm not bulemic. i don't have love/hate issues about my body. or food. or anything else. i am simply a theater actor that's hollywood fat. and by working this weight off, i'm doing something about it.

or i could keep eating and turn myself into a big black woman who plays caricatures that amount to little more than what can only be described as mammy for the 21st century -- usually with a lot more attitude and sass than she had in minstrelsy.

i don't want to have some long, drawn out post-feminist argument/discussion about how hollywood's obsession with youth and a size 4 body ideal has given a lot of girls and women in this country a complex and how you may or may not think i'm buying into that by doing any of this. all of that stuff is cute in theory. but this isn't theory. this is my career. and that's what makes it counterproductive - and moot. i realize that this is an important moment for me. i can either get it together and do what i have to do to make the transition to on camera work - get lean and get my teeth fixed - or not. this aspect of the business involves paying a great deal of attention to what i look like, and turning myself into something of a junior triathlete to get the leanness i know i need to look a certain way on camera is par for the course. now i understand why the actors i'd meet in LA were so foaming-at-the-mouth obsessed about what they ate, how they looked on camera, what they looked like, what everyone else looked like. and when they weren't looking at everyone else, they were expecting everyone else to look at them. everyone, constantly checking each other out. think about it: if you look that good, the compliments have to keep coming, you have to stop traffic, you have to look a certain way - or what's it all for, and how will you ever know what you're worth?

in this weight loss struggle, i am not alone. there are many bright shining examples of actors and actresses and performers in hollywood who did what they had to do to get that look. i just read lena horne's excellent bio stormy weather and i didn't get to the middle of the book before she was popping pills to get her weight down after having had two children, because the studio demanded it.

all in all, the results of such studied efforts have been transformative visually for many, to say the least. here's two of my all-time favorite examples:

once upon a time, greta garbo was a working film actress in sweden and happily studying theater. she was on her way to becoming a funny fat comedic actress with bad teeth, but filmmaker mauritz stiller saw something more.

 greta garbo at 16 years old. cute!

he made her take elocution lessons to walk and talk differently, and he got her a stylist so she could dress differently. he gave her acting lessons for the camera. and yes, he made her lose weight. she went on to star in two very successful european films.

 mauritz stiller and the much less chubby, frizzy haired virtually unrecognizable swedish movie star greta garbo, 1924

then they went to new york city. they languished there and almost went home but something interesting happened -- they took portraits of garbo and -- on the strength of those pictures alone -- MGM bigwigs decided to meet with them.

this is the photo that got her that interview.

look at those horrible teeth! but who cares about dental work when your beauty is mesmerizing. here she is again -- in 1924, photographed by henry b. goodwin in stockholm.

these photos were taken by arnold genthe for vanity fair in 1925, prior to garbo's arrival in hollywood.

irving thalberg didn't think garbo was pretty at all (remember, she is considered by many to be the most beautiful woman who ever graced the silver screen - and some believe that she is the most beautiful woman who ever lived) but if you consider what he saw when he looked at her -- a heavy set 21 year old frizzy haired swede with bad teeth who could barely speak english -- maybe you could cut him a little slack.

so he had her straighten her hair and get her teeth fixed. on a scouting trip to berlin, louis b. meyer actually looked her over and told her to lose more weight before she attempted to work in hollywood -- this, after she'd already lost enough weight at the onset of her on camera career to become a successful european star -- with the admonishment, "in america, men don't like their women fat." they groomed her for a few choice roles here and there, she made it through the transition to talkies and the rest, as they say, is history.

here's the finished product -- the one that most in the industry agree is the most beautiful woman to ever appear on film. wow -- she really doesn't look all that thrilled about it, now does she?

at the other end of the stick, of course, there's joan frackin' crawford - otherwise known as lucille le sueur.

joan's story is one for the books. she didn't have a svengali/lover at her elbow, telling her what to wear and what not to say. hers is a story of raw discipline, true grit and just plain old hard work on her physical self. i LOVE it! she knew everything that was required of her as a movie actress and as a star, and she handled her mutha-effin' business. period.

one day, joan was having stills taken by a cameraman, her friend johnny arnold, for a picture they were working on at the time. he told her offhandedly that her face was "built" - her bone structure was perfect for the camera but the camera couldn't get to any of it. for that to happen, she had to lose weight. joan took his casual remark to heart and promptly went on a diet of steak and tomatoes for lunch and dinner, and grapefruit for breakfast. in a month, she lost 20 pounds. her face changed so drastically, everyone assumed she got plastic surgery to make her eyes bigger. she didn't. at 5'1" and 149 pounds initially, she was pretty buxom. she dropped all the way down to 108 and never weighed more than 118 pounds for the rest of her career. and now -- to paraphrase paul harvey -- you know the rest of the story.

this is joan before the weight loss. (i'll bet you didn't even know this was joan, did you? i didn't.)

will you just look at that belly and those thighs? now that's hollywood fat.

and this is joan after the weight loss. of course, this new look garnered much more work and ultimately, success.

any questions?

i don't know. maybe i've got it all wrong but i don't think so. to make this transition, you have to plug into your inner svengali. after looking over pictures like this from back in the day, mine is totally on point.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A book review - "Are You Somebody?"

Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O'Faolain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When a really cool black female friend presented this book to me as a gift, she told me that other black women had been reading it voraciously and that through it, they saw themselves. I think her exact words were that they found their voice. I didn’t understand how an Irish writer, journalist and tv personality could pull that off but I decided to keep an open mind. I’m glad I did.

I think that ultimately, it’s the human experience that connects us and binds us. This is the stuff that transcends culture and gender and race and anything else that people tend to wallow in and use in divisive ways. It’s this human experience that touched me to the quick as she swung back and forth throughout moments in her life, from her childhood to her love life to her mother’s school days to her father’s career to her brother’s demise and more, much much more. Back and forth she swung like a pendelum, exacting and so full of feeling, swirling you into a conversation that she’s having with you, with her subconscious, with her very soul, perhaps. It really does read like an intimate chat, the kind you have with a close friend well into the night that reverberates within you whenever you think about that friend. No wonder so many have taken this woman to heart, and cherish her, and hold her close. Especially other women.

Here’s an interesting tidbit. At the end of the book, she talks about how you become invisible in society or are treated like a nutter after a certain age if you are a woman because you are no longer considered sexually attractive or viable. (Remember how they treated Susan Boyle?) The frustrating thing is that you still have those sexual feelings. What’s true is that women outlive men – females outlive males of every species, actually – and so the population curve is that eventually there will be a lot of single older women out there. Actually, according to stats, over 60% of African-American women are single and/or have never been married.

In the end, the snapshots that she creates with her words are so vivid, so painful, so real that I couldn’t help but think and reflect on my own life. I think that black people are used to being treated like they are a collective nobody by society but this is especially true for black women. Society wants us to believe that we are invisible, that we don’t matter at all. We don’t become invisible when we are no longer sexual objects. We are perpetually fetishized sexually. We know exactly how that invisibility feels at ANY age.

My black female invisibility doesn’t phase me in the least. It just makes it easier to get stuff done, to get what I need for me and mine, and to conquer the ground I stand on. And we black women, we can certainly see each other and stand together. Maybe that’s our strength, our advantage. Maybe that’s the lesson for our Irish sisters.

View all my reviews >>

Saturday, August 22, 2009

another day, another list

when i said most actors have to do more than one thing well to make a living, i meant it. you don't even want to get into what i've done already, so here's a list of all the stuff i do currently. where's y0urs?

  1. Freelance writer
  2. Producer
  3. Voiceover artist (commercial, animation)
  4. Solo performer
  5. Teacher/kiddie wrangler
  6. Proofreader
  7. Librettist
  8. Vocal teacher/coach
  9. Medical narrator
  10. Lyricist
  11. Blues singer
  12. Playwright
  13. Cabaret performer
  14. Medical copy editor
  15. Copy editor
  16. Essayist
  17. Musical theater performer
  18. Actor (theater/film/tv/commercials)
  19. Writer
  20. Jazz singer
  21. Performance artist
  22. Torch singer
  23. Songwriter
  24. Jingle singer

Friday, August 21, 2009

Black Man Fridays: Bayard Rustin

this is a clip from the documentary brother outsider: the life of bayard rustin. most of us know this brother as a tireless activist, a civil rights strategist and the architect of dr. king's march on washington. not many realize that mr. rustin's career spanned 60 years (he died in 1987), that he was actually dr. king's mentor - he was the one who turned dr. king on to ghandi - or that he led an openly gay life as far back as the 40s.

what i didn't know is that he had a beautiful tenor voice, went to college on music scholarships, performed regularly as a member of the blues group josh white and the carolinians at the infamous cafe society in greenwich village.

he was also from pennsylvania. and he was a quaker.

clearly, this is a biopic that is screaming to be made. i can't begin to imagine who in hollywood - especially black hollywood - that would have the balls to pull it off.

this is what you do when you get a little money, a little power as an actor: you start your production company and develop projects that give you a starring role and grow your career. waiting for the phone to ring shouldn't ever be an option. but hey, that's just me.

take a look at this video clip. i think mr. rustin was even more radical than malcolm x.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


if you're an artist, you learn pretty quickly that you are your own business - especially if you're an actor. maintenance and upkeep on all fronts is understood. expansion, vision and growth? now, that's something else. i don't get actors who don't do anything except act. they don't sing, they don't dance, they don't make a pair of pants. nice work if you can get it. most actors can't.

if you want to work steadily, you have to do more than one thing well. voiceover work is just another skill, like singing jingles. how much i work has everything to do with how i handle my business. how strong is my hustle? i'm never sure. it's always been a stick and move situation and like a shark, i can never keep still in this town. but it's stronger than it ever was. and that's something, i suppose. in a way, it's everything.

now that i've included medical narration in my voiceover skills, i've had to seriously think hard about what to charge clients. of course, i asked the internet and needless to say, i got some great answers, most notably from mcm voices voiceover blog's wonderfully concise and well-written entry setting rates in the voiceover business as well as a comprehensive voiceover industry rate card from the edge studio's voice design group. everything is up and off the ground now. i love doing voiceover work!

oh, yeah. i almost forgot. if you want to hear my demos, click here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

i've got it

i'm not sure exactly when the moment happened but i think i now understand the readjustment that's necessary when acting for the camera and the difference between that and what it takes to readjust on stage. it might have happened in the last class with the last monologue i did - something from the show sports night, as dana. i actually felt a switch click on somewhere in me as i was about to do it. pow, just like that.

i am painfully aware of this transition i'm making, and that so many genuinely talented theater/musical theater artists that i know never do this because of a myriad of reasons, most of them self-inflicted. i know from whence i speak. that was me not too long ago. but it's not me, not anymore. i am so grateful that i'm doing everything that i have to, to get to the other side of this. this is going to be some kind of adventure.

being able to watch myself on camera every week has had a profound effect on me. the truth is, i couldn't see what i was doing wrong - and i was doing soooo much! even my slate - the way i introduced myself was wrong! and to have someone at your elbow that reallly knows what they're doing means everything, everything. trust me - joanna beckson knows what she's doing. God bless her classes.

everytime anyone makes a mistake or does something that works, i'm taking notes. what worked? what didn't work? how can what they did work/not work for me? of course, everything matters - wearing primary colors and not patterns, keeping the make-up simple and low key, what i do with my hair. i just didn't realize how much it matters. it's a no brainer to say this, and yet i have to say it: it's a visual medium. they're looking and assessing what they see to figure out whether i'm right or not before i even open my mouth. am i comfortable with that? no. do i like it? no. i could philosophise ad nauseum about what's wrong with thinking that way and what it does to society and all that malarkey. or i can take the classes i need, get my body back so that i look a certain way on camera and get to work.

joan crawford had the right idea. more on that later.

Monday, August 17, 2009

on the road again

i have nothing further to add. not yet, anyway. leaving this sunny little town in a little while but first i'm making a pit stop for blueberry soda, sarsparilla, blueberry maple syrup and any other regional delicacies that would be happy to live in the kitchen of my west harlem apartment.

no junk food in the car, no fast food on the way. no edible garbage whatsoever - just ice water, good music and a sleepy disposition. hm. what i really want is a night light, so i can read and sketch and make lists...

tomorrow, i have to hit the gym with a vengeance and then i have an audition for a musical. i'm going to spend the afternoon practicing guitar and hammering out song ideas. then there's a 3 hour on-camera acting class in the evening and afterwards, i've got a gig at iridium with jc...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

i like portland and i don't like it at all

i like it here. it's sunshiny and wide open and pretty and green, with a real folksy vibe that feels a lot like (south) austin in the 80s, before it got gentrified and all these movie stars that wanted to be musicians showed up and then sxsw happened and everything went to hell. it's very DIY and all, with amazing coffee houses and bakeries and tea houses and such on every other corner. it's hilly and there's lots of old cool architecture and there's two and three story buildings everywhere, and where there aren't well-tended gardens, there are wildflowers and blooming trees and tiger lilies jumping out at you when you least expect it. even the filthy bums remind me of dragworms.

this is the top end of new england, and so there's plenty of fresh delicious inexpensive seafood to be had, whether you make it or not. and that's the other thing - there are tons of 5 star restaurants and eateries boasting their james beard awards and such, all over the place. really amazing inventive shockingly delicious food. (yes, i have been to duck fat - twice! no, i haven't been to hugo yet. next time.)

and i love it that the picket fences aren't the least bit ironic.

right now it's somewhere in the 80s so everyone but me is feeling the heat. today as i walked down congress avenue (!!!) i thought, wow - i'm in the midst of a retired hippy commune of some sort. and that's just it. this place would be perfect if i were retired. or if i were a graduate student. it's a college town, it moves slow, and it's a walking city - so easy to get around and relatively inexpensive to live in. i would also love to live here if i were an artist and i needed to write a book or finish a screenplay or do a series of paintings or something. something that required isolation from, you know, the world.

and of course, that leads me to all the reasons why i don't like it here.

i don't want to launch into the dearth of black folk in these here parts and how disturbing it is to walk into a place and get stared at openly by seemingly intelligent rational adults who know that their behavior is the epitome of rude - but for some strange reason, they can't help themselves. i could really go on about that. but i won't. instead, i'll tell you that i'm not so sure where the black folk hang out, socialize, break bread and, well, live. it's my culture, it's who i am. i am the antithesis of everything that new england is. i'm not even anywhere near old england. (thank jesus.)

funny thing. when we see each other in the street, we speak - and we are shocked to see each other, believe me. when you are black, making that eye-to-eye connection and speaking is always like coming in from the cold, no matter where you are in the world or who you are with. and it's beautiful. so yeah, where are we, where do we live? where can i get my hair done? none of these questions have been answered so far. i'm sure you're not surprised.

the small town feel undoes me, as does the fact that most of this stuff is boarded up and gone when the tourist season is over - and then we would be left to tunnel our way out of here just to do simple things like get the mail, with snow plows and shovels and chains on the cars and whatnot. i'm a southerner. i'll have a snowball fight with you if the mood overtakes us, but i really don't do snow.

everything is too slow, too quiet, too relaxed. it's the wierdest thing: everyone - and i mean everyone - is eating and shopping and relaxing. the only people who seem to be doing any work are the baristas or the waiters or the chefs. or whoever was running that train museum. i haven't seen any outlets for growing a band or new music or anything like that, and although there are medium sized houses for a national touring act to breeze through on their way to montreal, i haven't seen any music venues to support that basic unsigned act that's just doing their thing. maybe it's me, but i haven't heard of any cool bands from portland, maine. the other portland, yes. this one, not so much.

this is a nice life. it's just not my life.

my life has a legit agent and a commercial agent that submit me regularly for work. it has a jazz quintet, a rock band that can strip down if need be, and a lot of guitar lessons and voice lessons and theory lessons. my life has a lot of twang in it these days. a lot of voiceover work. a lot of working out. a lot of underexposure and songwriting and auditioning and singing. my life has a lot of friends who are my family. my life is transitioning from theater and musical theater to film and television and commercials. my life isn't all that complicated and with any real degree of luck, my life will be bicoastal very soon . my life is a lot of fun, even if the fun is something i have to work at, sometimes. because sometimes my life is dark and strange and full of mystery. still and all, it's quite a ride.

where does any of this fit into portland maine?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

larry the lobster

i'm having way too much fun in portland maine eating lobster and goofing off with my friends to blog anything of real interest today. or tomorrow, probably. i should say something cheesy about larry the lobster from that infamous eddie murphy saturday night live skit in the 80s but you probably won't know what i'm talking about.

that episode - and the angry sardonic way he confronted the racist viewer that wrote the show to complain about him - stayed with me for a very long time. i spent my entire childhood on charleston south carolina's coastline eating almost nothing but seafood, so the viewer's remarks made me laugh out loud - until i realized they were actually serious. after that, every lobster that hit my plate was definitely larry as far as i was concerned. the uprising, revolt and sacrifice happens in one fell swoop just as soon as the water hits a rolling boil. (it's a spartacus thing...)

i couldn't find it on (big surprise) so here's a clip of the larry the lobster you probably do know, from the ever-popular spongebob squarepants series. and here's hoping you enjoy a larry of your own for dinner very soon.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Black Man Fridays - The Murder Of Fred Hampton, Parts 1 - 4

i always liked this brother.

he was honest, sincere, and very smart - a gifted communicator, a college student, a young father and husband, and an officer in the black panther party. how cool that he could see the positive impact of his hard work in the community and how it was making a difference in the lives of so many people. but it was the twang in his voice that got me. he seemed so down to earth and folksy and accessible. even now, when i see film clips of him casually talking politics, he feels like someone i used to know.

fred was killed - actually what i should say is, murdered - in his apartment by the chicago police in conjunction with the fbi. it seems that j. edgar hoover - everyone's favorite crossdressing homosexual! - was willing to do anything to twart a black power movement, even if that meant assassinating all of its officers.

i think the black power movement was extremely dangerous to the status quo because it was so inclusive. all power to all people wasn't just a chant they threw up in the air at rallies. they meant it. such a radical shift would have destroyed everything that edgar held dear. everyone would have stopped obsessing about things like race and gender issues and they would have focused on what's really going on.

here's the documentary "the murder of fred hampton" in four parts. i know it's a little long, but trust me - it's well worth watching. and really, shouldn't we always make every effort to know our history?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

i got it!

this evening in on camera acting class, something clicked.

we were looking at monologues that we'd put on camera during the previous class - a scene from a sit-com, actually - and i watched one person after another do their bit and then listened as the instructor joanna gave her insights and carefully gave balanced critique and made helpful suggestions. it was all very supportive and encouraging, a very safe space to do something new and uncomfortable and strange.

when she got to my take, i got really objective and i took careful notes - but something in me balked in spite of myself. joanna said to stay away from patterns and wear solid colors on camera, and that the camera especially liked solid colors. i thought, okay. i'll wear primary colors to auditions from now on. the red dress i chose was absolutely luminous. it looked orange on camera but it still worked. i had on that bob wig and it actually worked really well, too. the makeup was great, the accessories worked. but something was off.

joanna paused the tape and explained that i was giving what the people in the industry would call a soft read. i was way too subdued. then she told me why i should be bigger and i realized i was afraid to go in that direction, because bigger to me meant theatrical and that was always a bad idea on camera. but according to joanna, that's not entirely true if you're doing comedy or even dramedy. so i thought, okay. i'll try it. why not? the worst she can do is rein me in. and that's what you do - you do the lines, you're given direction, you make the adjustments, you keep going. sounds simple, right? it soooooo isn't.

somehow whatever she said sank in. when it was time for me to do the next monologue, i nailed it. i nailed it so hardcore, she blurted, "great read!" from the back of the room. i felt like something fell into my hands and i really didn't want to let it go. all i could think was, i got it. i got it! that transition that i never thought would happen, the one that would take me from theater to film/tv, has finally taken place.

to be completely honest with you, i stood in my own way for a really long time. let's face it - it's a visual medium. what you look like and whether the camera likes you or not is mostly why anyone seriously considers you for a part. so initially, i didn't think i was pretty enough, or light skinned enough. i knew that my acting abilities were largely irrelevant. there's plenty of people out there on tv every week and in the movies and whatnot, they're lousy actors and they're making bank. they know how to hit their mark and they know how to pose and make the right faces and say their lines "with feeling" - and they know how to work the camera.

i figured it was better to stick with what i did best, what i knew. i was wrong.

after class, i went for a walk to think and think and think. i like this on camera stuff. i'm warming up to the whole process, to letting the camera see my thoughts. and i'm working harder and harder on what i look like, for whatever it's worth. beauty is in the eye of the beholder but i think that if it's the camera's eye that's beholding me - that favors me - i'll be fine.

and yes. my gradual weight loss is totally changing the way the camera sees me. more on that later.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

i wanted to post the winans' song tomorrow but unfortunately wouldn't let me. but then i remembered this gem from a rather young and sweet-faced tevin campbell called - what else? - tomorrow, a product of quincy jones.

this song was everywhere. whatever happened to tevin campbell?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

keep it gully

a film audition today. a commercial audition tomorrow. an on-camera acting class tonight. i'm running lines like crazy all the time. for thursday, i'm learning a monologue and two scenes.

we're starting to do scenes and monologues on camera -- and boy do i look weird. but hey, at least i'm losing weight...

Monday, August 10, 2009


a short list to glimpse my life, in no particular order:

  1. ride your bike absolutely everywhere you have to go -- unless it's raining, of course.
  2. drop off donated items to the salvation army - and get that reciept for a tax write off. continue to do this every month for the rest of the year.
  3. take a meeting with brad at adh for an as of yet unnamed jazz project for spring, 2011.
  4. boxing conditioning class at 1pm and then hit the gym. hard.
  5. manicure/pedicure at jeniette salon - it's the monday/tuesday special!
  6. pick up another bio/autobiography - something definitive on nina simone or artie shaw or maybe thomas jefferson. and don't forget to loan joanna your copy of gladwell's latest book outliers.
  7. pay the mad fashionista a little visit, and get an appropriate outfit for the mock audition
  8. run lines ad nauseum for two scenes in on camera acting class
  9. on camera acting class, 6pm - 9pm
  10. schedule a voice lesson and a piano lesson for later in the week

Saturday, August 08, 2009

No news is good news...

I'm out of town on a gig today -- road trip! -- so there's nothing interesting to say today. tomorrow should be a banner day, though. stay tuned.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Black Man Fridays - Geoffrey Holder

this is the way geoffrey holder and i met: as the "uncola" man in the 7up commercials from back in the day. he was 6'6 and stunning. so effortlessly elegant. so graceful. so fun! and that laugh!

it didn't start with godfrey, the latest pitch man -- or orlando jones from the 90s. it seems that the 7up folks have had a long history of hiring tall, dark and handsome black men to shill their sparkly soda, starting with geoffrey -- who was so popular, they brought him back in the 80s to do another series of commercials.

only later did i discover geoffrey holder the dancer, choreographer, actor, visual artist, singer, costume designer, voice over artist.

did i mention his exquisite wife dancer, choreographer and actress carmen de lavallade? she's actually creole, you know. that notorious negrophile carl van vechten took the first photo in 1955, the year that they were wed. the second photo is of mrs. holder in 1983 - at the age of 52.

Dance Photography

everyone would wax poetic over bill cosby and his wife camille and their love story, how he was a morehouse man and she finished at spelman and their children and so on. but none of that held any real allure for me. i was always drawn to geoffrey and carmen. they were so continental, so regal, and just so incredibly talented and dripping with elan and the special brand of joy that comes from doing what you love with the one you love. i knew as a child that the world they inhabited was filled with beautiful things because they were so beautiful. mr. and mrs. cosby seemed so conventional in comparison. and kind of lackluster, really. not that there's anything wrong with that. but these dancers -- wow. i felt it in my little girl soul: they were my kind of people.

here's a glimpse of a documentary about them, from first run pictures, so you can glimpse what i mean.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

five thousand words

me in charleston, sc

me, again

douglas on the farm in appalachia (ga)

douglas in repose - charleston, sc

uncle douglas with his nephew thomas - magic johnson theater, greenbriar mall/the atl

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

what i learned so far in my on-camera acting workshop

this is my first week at joanna beckson studios and i totally love it. we do stuff on camera, then we look at it objectively and dissect it as a group - which is a jillion times harder to do than it sounds. the thing is, it's so easy to make readjustments and work towards breaking bad habits when they're staring at you on a huge monitor.

so far, so good. here's my top ten.
  1. awful but true: most casting directors don't look past your slate -- that is, the first ten seconds of your audition, or your introduction. ("hi, my name is...")
  2. smile. it matters.
  3. if you do smile, make sure it's sincere. if it's not, it will read fake. everything reads on camera. every. little. thing.
  4. the camera adds 10 to 20 pounds on you. (really.)
  5. film/tv/commercials are a visual medium. how you look is everything. it won't matter that you're a great actor if they don't get past those first ten seconds.
  6. the camera sees your thoughts. (this is my favorite one!) think the thought and your eyes and face will contribute the appropriate expression on their own. of course, this is the exact opposite of "making faces".
  7. when you look into the camera, you are engaging the camera. when you look down, you are disconnecting. don't disconnect - unless that's a pertinent acting choice, of course.
  8. the best colors to wear to an audition are green or blue. the camera likes these colors on most people, but you should know what your colors are - and be sure to dress appropriately.
  9. know who you look like and what type you're playing, and use that familiarity when you audition.
  10. and last but not least - trust the camera. (this is especially hard for me. i don't trust easily.)

Monday, August 03, 2009

Taylor Guitars/Elixir Strings Test-Drive 2009

Taylor Guitars and Elixir Strings are sponsoring a contest called Test-Drive 2009. What do you win? Free gear. Free studio time. No purchase necessary. Sounds good, right? So, what's the catch?

Out of the jillions of bands that enter in the month of July, the voting period begins - drumroll, please! - today. Yes, TODAY. Everybody and anybody with a valid e-mail address can vote for any band under consideration absolutely every single day in August. The top 25 bands are semi-finalists. Five bands are chosen to be finalists, and then of course one band will be the Grand Prize Winner. Wouldn't it be nice if it were me?

I love free stuff, I love Taylor guitars, and I'd loooooooooove to get some recording done. So if you like my sound at all, look inside your heart (yes, in that Miller's Crossing kind of way) and start or end each of your days this month by voting for me.

You don't even have to do a band search to find me in their system and vote for me! I've already done all that searching for you right here.

Official contest website here. Official rules here. And as always, thank you for your support.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Why I Want A Wife

Written by Judy Syfers in 1971, this classic piece of feminist humor appeared in the premier issue of Ms. Magazine and was widely circulated in the women’s movement - so yeah, I thought you'd like to read it. Enjoy!

I belong to that classification of people known as wives. I am A Wife.

And, not altogether incidentally, I am a mother. Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce. He had one child, who is, of course, with his ex-wife. He is looking for another wife. As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I too, would like to have a wife. Why do I want a wife?

I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and if need be, support those dependent upon me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturing attendant to my children, who arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo, etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife’s income from time to time, but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working.

I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals,serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue care for me and my when I need a rest and change of scene. I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. But I want a wife who will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a rather difficult point I have come across in my course of studies. And I want a wife who will type my papers for me when I have written them.

I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life. When my wife and I are invited out by my friends, I want a wife who take care of the baby-sitting arrangements. When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends. I want a wife who will have arranged that the children are fed and ready for bed before my guests arrive so that the children do not bother us. I want a wife who takes care of the needs of my quests so that they feel comfortable, who makes sure that they have an ashtray, that they are passed the hors d’oeuvres, that they are offered a second helping of the food, that their wine glasses are replenished when necessary, that their coffee is served to them as they like it. And I want a wife who knows that sometimes I need a night out by myself.

I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it. I want a wife who assumes the complete responsibility for birth control, because I do not want more children. I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies. And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.

If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free.

When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife’s duties.

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

...and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

the national blog posting month - nablopomo - theme for the month of august is "tomorrow" -- whatever that means. i don't have to stick to the subject at hand. i just have to write something every day. let's see what develops.

of course, the first thing i thought about was the song tomorrow from the musical annie. strangely, most fans of jay-z already know at least one song from that show. i totally forgot that this little number is actually a really good song, that the show was on broadway forever and toured everywhere even longer than that.

it sort of begs the question: what happened to all the little girls who played the title role? there are quite a few of them. i always wonder what everyone does next, once the spotlight fades. i always want the backstory. usually, it's so much more interesting that what's happening on stage.

sure, we all know that andrea mcardle was the originator and sarah jessica parker was the 3rd actress to play the role on broadway. but what about charlene barton in the london production? frida von schewen in the swedish production? rachael marley in the australian production? beatrice visentini in the italian production? marissa o'donnell in the 30th anniversary production - the one that ran for 3 years? what about brittny kissinger?

what about annie #2? what about daddy warbucks? what about sandy, the wonder dog?

so wierd. there's a world of unknowns out there, full of bravado, singing (or acting) their hearts out in all kinds of shows everywhere - right up the street, all over the world. the strangeness lives within the sensation that there is wonder amongst us, that walks right beside us, that we can't seem to recognize until it's beyond us. or until it's too late. every famous someone was an unknown, weren't they? think about it - there's halle berry, considered by so many to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. and to think, once upon a time not that long ago, she was a former beauty queen/out-of-work actress/hostess in an upscale restaurant in downtown nyc. believe me, you weren't gawking at her then. you were wondering why this black girl couldn't find your reservation, or why she gave you the worst table in the restaurant, or whatever.

just about everybody has their new york city story of anonymity. thankfully, this seems to be a great place to disappear into a crowd.

anyway, here's some snapshots of a few annies.